FAR FROM JUST FLIGHTY PERSIFLAGE or limited strictly to foreboding midnight caterwauls (think Poe’s raven, Coleridge’s albatross), birds and verse can go together quite mellifluously, rather like the images of David Allen Sibley and anthological guidance of former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins do in Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010). This gorgeous new volume of ornithological verse is as welcome a spring companion as those first lengthening, warmer days that promise a bounteous garden and more time to spend outdoors.
One of the true joys of Bright Wings, that is, in addition to Sibley’s captivating opaque watercolor and gouache paintings, is its avoidance of the obvious and cliché-riddled when it comes to poems about birds. As Collins relates in the book’s intro, “Because this gathering did not want merely to echo the work of past anthologizers, many of the obvious choices were passed over. Classics such as Keat’s and Coleridge’s nightingales, Yeats’s swans at Coole, Bryan’s waterfowl, Jeffers’s hawks, Hopkins’s windhover, and Poe’s raven have been showcased in so many books of poetry—bird-oriented or otherwise—that no editorial regrets were felt at the decision to leave them out. Instead, air time is given to many lesser-known poems, particularly more contemporary ones, in order to give the reader a better chance of being taken by surprise.”
Taking flight, then, are evocative, plumed words by poets as far ranging as Jonathan Aaron (“Cedar Waxwings”) and David Bottoms (“An Owl”) to Lisa Williams (“The Kingfisher” and “Grackles”) and David Yezzi (“Mother Carey’s Hen”)—but that doesn’t mean you won’t find Thomas Hardy (“The Darkling Thrush” ), D.H. Lawrence (“Humming-Bird” ), Emily Dickinson (“I have a Bird in spring” and “I dreaded that first Robin so” ) or William Carlos Williams (“The Birds” ). Again, Collins from his intro: “[R]ecent poems about birds may fall into the loose category of ‘ecopoetry,’ or they may remain in a state of post-Emersonian idealism regarding nature.” Whatever path they take in Bright Wings, they capture our fancy while simultaneously setting our spirit free, whether read silently or aloud, which, as with all poetry, serves them best.
I’ll let poet Juliana Gray have the parting words here, from her Bright Wings-included poem “Rose-Breasted Grosbeak”: “Oh, pretty bird! Oh, fluff and feathers, beak / and bright eye, alliterative name / in my throat!”